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Dear FDA: Your Social Media Guidance Is Requested (Part II)

Back in April, Leigh Fazzina, chair-elect of PRSA’s Health Academy, wrote in PRSAY of the dire need for long-promised and oft-delayed social-media guidelines from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. We’re still waiting.

A recent article in The Washington Post summed up the frustration that many in the healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors feel over their company’s use of social media. Headlined “Drug companies lose protections on Facebook, some decide to close pages,” the article told of one of the greatest challenges PR professionals in this sector face: knowing when and where it is appropriate — or legal — to communicate online with consumers.

After promising to release guidelines late last year, the FDA has yet to commit to an updated deadline. Understandably, this is leaving many frustrated. Unsure of what their companies’ next steps should be in the vastly growing and powerful social media space, they either go it alone or pull back, waiting for guidance.

I can hear legal calling now: no communication or comment is the better way to go.

It’s time for the FDA to act and to properly advise those it regulates. This is the same government regulator whose commissioner dubbed it “America’s Innovation Agency” in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed.

PRSA has long advocated for proper guidance from the FDA concerning pharmaceutical social-media guidelines. As Fazzina wrote in Advertising Age in May, it should come as “no surprise [to the FDA] that healthcare and pharmaceutical companies with practical information about treatments are eager to be where the patients already are — active in social media and social networking.”

Fazzina adds:

“Given that eight out of 10 Internet users are looking online for health information, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, it is imperative that the FDA finds a solution to its ongoing battle to provide timely and relevant guidelines for pharmaceutical social-media communications and marketing.”

Yet the FDA has not found a solution. Not even close. This is a growing problem for an industry where consumers are active online, seeking product information, wishing to communicate with companies and doctors directly and displaying an eagerness to engage with others.

As The Washington Post outlined, the situation has gotten so bad, with so little guidance from the FDA, that some brands are pulling out of Facebook marketing altogether. Without insight into what the FDA will and will not allow concerning social media marketing, many companies, understandably, do not wish to waste thousands of dollars on campaigns that might have to be pulled after-the-fact.

PRSA certainly appreciates the complexity of this assignment; however, the FDA’s delay in issuing social-media guidance only leads to a gap in open and transparent communication.

The prolonged absence of much-needed social-media guidance by the FDA is a detriment to the online patient communities that rely on these communications. For the FDA to live up to its self-proclaimed innovation reputation, it needs to refocus its efforts on providing timely guidance to the industries it regulates. This is particularly important as technology evolves faster and more consumers display an eagerness to interact online with pharmaceutical and healthcare companies.

We would welcome the opportunity to work with the FDA to help address consumer privacy and transparency concerns in social media. It is long past time for the FDA to act on its promise and provide timely and appropriate social-media guidance.

Rosanna M. Fiske, APR, is chair and CEO of the Public Relations Society of America.

UPDATE (11:22 a.m. EDT, Aug. 29): CNET chief political correspondent Declan McCullagh cited PRSA’s blog post in an article about the growing frustration within the online pharmaceutical and health care marketing industries over the FDA’s lack of promised social-media guidance.

About the author

Rosanna M. Fiske, APR, Fellow PRSA

Rosanna M. Fiske, APR, Fellow PRSA

Rosanna M. Fiske, APR, Fellow PRSA, is the Vice President of Corporate Communications at Wells Fargo & Company, Florida. Fiske was PRSA's Chair and CEO in 2011.

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